The Olympics on TV in the UK

The 2012 London Olympics were perhaps the high point for UK viewers who wanted to watch the Olympic Games. For a home event, the BBC pulled out all the stops with coverage across BBC One, BBC Two and BBC Three (then still on broadcast). There was a vast array of other broadcasts too, with up to 24 channels available via Sky, Virgin Media and online. If there was a camera pointed at it, the BBC was showing it. If you wanted to watch fencing heats or handball qualifiers, you could.

So some viewers were disappointed when, as the Tokyo games started this weekend, the coverage seemed much more restricted. Only one BBC TV channel is showing live coverage – predominantly BBC One, with a second stream available via the Red Button/iPlayer. I turned on this morning to watch the last few hours of the men’s cycling road race, one of the first Olympic events, and one that Britain had a small chance of a medal in. BBC One was showing it, Simon Brotherton and Chris Boardman doing sterling work in the (UK-based) commentary booth during a contest that runs for more than six hours. But at times the coverage disappeared. As things were hotting up, the coverage switched from BBC One to the Red Button for 30 minutes so that BBC One could show something else. Then later, having switched back to BBC One, and as things were tightening towards the culmination of the event (these kinds of races tend to be slow burns, with the big moves happening relatively late), coverage flipped away to show some British gymnastics qualifiers before returning for the finale of the race.

This left some cycling fans unhappy. Why couldn’t the race be shown somewhere uninterrupted? Perhaps on BBC Two which was instead simulcasting children’s programming from CBBC?

The real issue here is that, for the first time in a long time, the BBC’s Olympic rights’ package is a lot smaller than it has been in the past, because Discovery bought all European TV rights some years back. And perhaps understandably, the BBC hasn’t exactly shouted about this.

A Recent History of UK and European Olympic TV Rights

In 2012, just ahead of the London games, the BBC announced that it had renewed its deal with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the next four Olympic Games – two summers and two winters. That would carry it through until the 2020 summer games.

Then, in 2015, Discovery announced that it was paying $1.3 billion for the rights to all the Olympic Games between 2018 and 2024 for the whole of Europe. Discovery had previously acquired Eurosport in 2014. There was the small issue that the BBC had already bought the rights to the 2018 winter games, and 2020 summer games under their existing 2012 deal. That either meant that Discovery’s Europe-wide plans would need to exclude the UK, or they could come to some kind of agreement with the BBC.

Side note: As part of Discovery’s original deal, they also created an Olympic TV channel that runs year around. What do you mean you’ve never seen it?

No. Me neither. It’s unclear where it gets carriage aside from online. But I think you can certain that you’re probably not missing anything popular in your country.

Move forward to 2016, and the BBC and Discovery announced that they had come to an agreement. The BBC would sub-licence its rights to the 2018 winter and 2020 summer games to Discovery. And in return Discovery would sub-licence its rights for the 2022 winter and 2024 summer games back to the BBC.

What was less obvious, although it was reported at the time, was that the BBC would effectively become limited in how much coverage it could broadcast – essentially one live channel and one red button channel amounting to some 350 hours. It couldn’t then just put everything else live online. Discovery effectively got those rights.

The BBC would be able to choose what it put on TV – it could jump around between sports showing the best of the action from across the Games. But of course, with many events taking place simultaneously, that’s not always possible – hence having to leave the men’s road race at a critical stage to show some gymnastics. And that is likely to mean concentrating on Team GB’s competitors and medal hopes at the expense of some other events where there aren’t British athletes likely to be winning.

Discovery, meanwhile, is utilising Eurosport and its apps to broadcast its games coverage. In the UK there are usually two Eurosport channels in operation, but during the games, another 7 HD channels have popped up on Sky and Virgin Media. Beyond that, they have a pretty decent app (I was previously a subscriber) which is available on most platforms and can show lots more coverage. Coverage is also available, I believe, on the European version of the Discovery+ app.

In the BBC’s press release detailing the agreement with Discovery, I did note that they specifically mentioned licencing the “Pay TV” rights to Discovery, and this can be the only reason that Discovery has not made more of their rights across their full range of channels. For example, Quest TV is available on Freeview and regularly shows sport – not least Saturday night highlights of EFL football. If only to use it as a “barker” channel, I’d have thought that rebranding it “Eurosport Olympics on Quest” or something, and showing wall to wall coverage alongside frequent promotion of their various subscription offerings would have been smart. But I suspect that the BBC might have restricted them from doing this and limiting coverage to channels behind some kind of paywall.

Listed Events

But hang on.

I thought that in the UK we still had “Listed Events” – a list of sports that have to be made available free-to-air? And isn’t the Olympics right at the top of that list?

Indeed there is. And in fact, early last year, the list got amended for the first time in years (after multiple groups examined the case for maintaining or updating the list, none of which ever came to anything), with the Paralympic Games being added to list.

The “List” is broken into two parts – those that must have “full live coverage protected” on free-to-air TV channels that can be received by 95% of the population, and those that must have highlights shown on the same channels.

The live list includes, the Olympic Games, the FIFA World Cup Finals Tournament, The European Football Championships Finals Tournament, The FA Cup Final, The Scottish FA Cup Final (in Scotland) and so on. The “secondary coverage” (i.e. highlights) includes Test Cricket, non-finals at Wimbledon (although we get them live on the BBC), the World Athletics Championships (ditto), The Commonwealth Games (ditto) and The Ryder Cup.

Discovery said at the time of its 2015 rights bid that it would make 200 hours available to free-to-air local broadcasters. As well as the UK’s Listed Events, many countries across the EU have similar provisions under the Audio Visual Media Services Directive 2010. Exactly which sports are listed in this manner varies from country to country.

My question here is what constitutes “full live coverage” of The Olympics? Is the BBC’s 350 hours enough? As we’ve seen, that’s by no means the entirety of the games. But then, until recently, no broadcaster showed the entirety of any Olympic Games. But today, in a world of streaming, that is very much possible.

Eurosport’s Coverage

It’s early days, but you have to be a little underwhelmed with Eurosport’s coverage so far. You always have the feeling that they’re an organisation that has bitten off slightly more than it can chew. They have hours of rights, but do they have the resources and infrastructure to back them up? Whenever you read those articles in the Daily Mail about how many people the BBC has sent to cover things like the Olympics or Glastonbury, the fruits of that production resource tends to show up on screen. If you want to cover hundreds – or even thousands – of hours of sport, you do need people on the ground, even if the main coverage is provided by the host broadcaster as is the case at the Olympics. You need to package up those rights, put commentators and producers into place, and create packages of highlights.

Eurosport has not insignificant additional issue in that it broadcasts in multiple languages across Europe. So it’s coverage gets even more complicated. How many production teams in how many studios? The highlights a UK audience might want to see may differ from those a German audience is looking forward to.

So far, it has felt a bit haphazard. Some of their expansion channels have run for hours without any commentary whatsoever, or if there is a commentary feed, it’s a bit crackly, no doubt in part because commentators are mostly remote and doing their work “off tube” – not even necessarily in Eurosport’s studios, but in their own homes. One channel I watched earlier had no sound at all, suggesting that production teams in Paris where I believe most of the coverage is being handled, are too thin on the ground to be able to monitor all the feeds in all the languages. The EPG on Sky is at best a “guess” – it says, artistics gymnastics, but that looks like football. And even though I know there are other sports they could be showing, some of their channels are off-air, just running captions.

Olympic Charter

One interesting aspect of the Olympics is that there is their much heralded Olympic Charter, an almost mythical document as far as the IOC is concerned first penned by the creator of the modern games, Pierre de Coubertin.

In section 48.1 of the Charter, you will find it says this about coverage of the Olympics:

The IOC takes all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games.

The fullest coverage to the widest possible audience. You would think that means making the games available to free-to-air channels ahead of pay-TV channels wouldn’t you? At the very least, you’d think that means working with channels that can deliver you the biggest audiences., which are more likely than not to be free-to-air.

And yet the IOC’s biggest TV deal in Europe is with a broadcaster that is predominantly a pay-TV one.

It could be worse, across 24 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, the Qatar-based beIN Sports holds the exclusive rights to the games. Delivered for the most part by satellite, they’re a pay-TV giant that has the rights to most major sports in the region. While they will be offering 400 hours of free-to-air coverage, viewers will still need access to a satellite dish, and exactly what is included in those 400 hours is less clear. At least the BBC is able to pick and choose its 350 hours of coverage aimed at the interests of UK audiences.

Where Next?

In 2012, the BBC showed 2,500 hours of coverage on TV. In 2021 it will be 350.

As things stand, the BBC’s deal expires in 2024, and with Charter Renewal due in 2027, it might be tricky to sign a further multi-year deal right now (the BBC’s recent extension of their Wimbledon rights notably runs until 2027).

But Discovery will also need to renew their deal soon. Their current agreement runs until 2024 in Paris, and that’s only three years away now.

Is Discovery getting good value from their rights? They have to share coverage with public broadcasters across Europe because many countries have their own version of the UK’s “Listed Events” which restrict what sports can go behind paywalls. And since many athletes in the Olympics are effectively “state funded” via mechanisms such as the National Lottery in the UK, it’s very arguable that those who are funding the athletes should have the right to see them compete at the highest level.

The Discovery move back in 2015 was very bold – akin to what NBC had done to maintain its grip on the Olympics in the US. NBC’s new streaming platform, Peacock, was originally designed to launch off the back of the 2020 Olympics – although those plans were quashed by the pandemic. But now Discovery is in the middle of a giant merger with Warner Media, and it isn’t going to be able to extend its European rights into the US.

Discovery’s future looks very much to be wrapped up in Discovery+, it’s streaming offering. A report last year at the time of the launch of Discovery+, a platform very much built around reality TV strands, suggested that sports rights acquisitions will be more carefully considered on a market by market basis, and that Eurosport Player will be folded into Discovery+. GCN, their cycling app, and GolfTV will remain separate.

Do they renew their deal? The Paris 2024 games will be very much a home Olympics for Eurosport, with coverage in the “right” timezone, and hopefully back to having full stands of spectators.*

From a UK viewer’s perspective, these games may feel like a step backward rather than forwards. Once you’re used to getting something, you continue to expect to get it.

When I was growing up I might have had to make do with one or two channels of Olympics coverage – the BBC and ITV used to share it once upon a time. But we live in an age now where a table tennis fan almost expects to be able to watch every match in every round of the tournament should they choose to. And that is now behind a paywall where it may or may not have a commentary.

The BBC is showing 350 hours of coverage, but in many European territories, local public service (or commercial) broadcasters are only getting 200 hours. So inevitably local broadcasters tend to concentrate on sports and events that their athletes are likely to do well in. In other words, the coverage gets just a bit more jingoistic. If you have more space/channels to spread your coverage out across, you can look more widely for athletic contests that mightn’t otherwise have been shown but are good sporting matchups.

Multi-billion dollar corporations like Discovery (soon Discovery Warner Media), Comcast (owners of NBC) and beIN are always going to be able to bid more than others. But you do have to ask, “At what cost?”

Note: It goes without saying that everything I publish here represents my own personal opinions and not those of my employer. But it’s always worth reiterating.

* Earlier this week, the New York Times’ Opinion writer Kara Swisher interviewed IOC Member Dick Pound on her podcast, Sway, about the then upcoming games. She asked him about the fact that these games wouldn’t have the “roar of the crowd” and what would that mean. Remarkably he replied, “I mean, I think spectators are nice to have, but they’re not must-haves. … 99.5% or more of the people who experience the Tokyo Games will do so via television or some other electronic platform. They don’t care whether there are a few thousand in various stadia cheering on the athletes. It’s probably more fun to have that crowd reaction. But in certain sports, it may be a distraction as much as an advantage.”

I realise that Pound is player with the hand that he has been dealt, but come on. Squeaky trainers on the floor of echoing empty arenas and stacks of empty chairs are not what the Olympics are about!



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